With governments in Nevada scraping for every cent during a crippling budget crisis, Washoe County Voter Registrar Dan Burk has one suggestion: Return to paper ballots.
Burk said most of the alleged reforms that came out of the Florida recount dispute have driven election costs sky high without assuring better elections.
His case can be illustrated by imagining a Washoe County polling place in two elections.
In 2000, visualize a polling place for two precincts in a school meeting room. There might have been three voting stations for each precinct, six in all. Those voting stations were essentially little folding desks enclosed on three sides at which voters stood to mark their paper ballots, and they cost about $100 each. Also in the room was a ballot scanner. A voter slid his or her ballot into a tray on the scanner, which sucked it in with a whoosh. The scanner cost about $6,000.
Fast forward eight years, to 2008. That same polling place no longer had a scanner, but it still had six voting stations. Now, however, instead of six inexpensive enclosed platforms for use as desks, every voting station was an elaborate touch screen voting machine, each costing $6,000.
What previously cost $6,600 now costs $36,000. And it doesn’t stop there. With equipment, insurance, pay for poll workers and so on, the cost of elections is skyrocketing. And, Burk said, the money isn’t buying much in improved administration of elections. What has been seen as progress is actually only change.
“We went from about a $1.5 million a year budget in an election cycle year—that’s a primary and a general in an even-numbered year—to about 2.8 [million] now, ever since we went to the touch screen technology.”
And that was with the federal government’s Help America Vote Act (HAVA) and a voting machine company (which wanted to demonstrate its equipment) paying a lot of the bills. Otherwise, the increase in the budget would have been much greater—and those two sources of funding will eventually go away. With that outside help, each polling place this year cost only about $11,000, and the county had a hundred polling places.
“Right now, most of the pain is taken away because the [Nevada] secretary of state is using HAVA funds in order to protect us from the real impact, which is the licensing agreement and maintenance agreement,” Burk said. “Those things will be astounding when they start hitting the local governments after we get off of that [funding] system—and we will someday run out of that money. Who’s going to pick up the tab for that?”
The state, perhaps? That laughter you hear is coming from state lawmakers who are not sure where they’ll get money for photocopy paper and highways this year.
The new voting machines are also much more high maintenance. They can’t just be stored away and forgotten between elections, as in the past. They have to be charged monthly—”both the little units to activate a card that you give the voter and let them go into the unit, and also the actual voting units themselves. I think the county wound up paying about $15,000 last year just charging them.”
“It costs us about $65,000 a year just to ship them out to [polling places] and bringing them back for the two elections,” Burk said. “It’s just—the amount of work it takes, 13 to 14 days of work on it just to get them ready for an election with about a 15-member staff.”
County voting officials will likely call some of this to the attention of state lawmakers.
“We don’t need to quit doing some fundamental things you have to do,” Burk said. “But there might be less expensive ways to do this, and I’ve asked that the [county] clerks association sit down in January and talk about where are we heading with this thing and what are we doing to do the day that the money runs out from the secretary of state’s office.” (The secretary of state passes along federal HAVA funds. Washoe and Clark counties have voter registrars while elections in the smaller counties are administered by county clerks.)
Election reforms adopted by Congress and imposed on the states after the Florida recount in 2000 have not advanced efficiency, honesty or speed, Burk said. In fact, among the problems associated with the new voting machines is that a recount can’t be done within the legally required five-day period in Nevada.
By contrast with the federal changes, Washoe County adopted some voting changes after the county lagged in the 1998 vote count that resulted in a statewide recount of the race for U.S. Senate between John Ensign and Harry Reid. Those changes, tailored to the local community, resulted in the 2000 voting system that Burk thinks worked just fine. With that system, Accuvote, voters colored in ovals on paper ballots next to the names of candidates they supported.
“I don’t think we’re thinking long term,” Burk said. “We ought to be thinking about voting by mail. We ought to be thinking about, if not that, going back to paper-based, precinct based tabulation like we used to have in the old Accuvote system. … These electronic systems are just killers in the amount of time they take and the troubles that you have.”
Assemblymember Sheila Leslie of Washoe County, who sits on the Assembly budget committee, said she is certain her colleagues in the Nevada Legislature would be receptive to a change that would offer a better result and financial savings.
“The county officials are the experts, and Dan Burk commands respect,” said Leslie. “He has a record of trying to make sure that every vote gets counted. Legislators share that objective, and so I think we would welcome a presentation along those lines.”
She said she is especially concerned that the new system requires regular maintenance.
While going back to paper ballots may seem like a backward step, in fact the post-Florida changes went too far, Burk said, and the state should now back up. Some of the changes, such as getting rid of punch card paper ballots with chads, made sense, but getting rid of paper ballots altogether was an overreaction.
He also said he’d like to sell off the touch screen machines, perhaps saving a couple for narrow uses, so that “if we can get down that road to try to find somebody who’d be interested in buying them … and see if we can’t back up a step and go to a little bit more simplistic, paper-based tabulation-type system.”